Tag Archives: NGV

Deaccessioning is part of collecting

The National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) website tells me that it has “over 65,000 artworks spanning thousands of years”, but it doesn’t tell me why. To what purpose have they put together this collection. National (state) art galleries are like their counterparts in the computer game Civilisation. Collect the set in your city to advance to the next level. The purpose of these institutions was to provide education and, failing that, an alternative leisure activity, infotainment. Major galleries become part of tourism with destination architecture; the Guggenheim in New York and Bibloa are paradigm examples. These institutions are about providing a tourist attraction in a spectacle based economy.

Jeff Koons, Venus 2016-20 at the NGV

I haven’t seen a full acquisition policy for the NGV, but it gets mentioned in passing in some of its annual reports. A proper acquisition policy would be transparent, accessible to the public, and include a deaccession policy.

However, deaccessioning is almost a forbidden topic of discussion in Australia; consider the following statements. “Deaccessioning is crazy”, declared John Payne, Senior Conservator of Paintings at the NGV, at a talk (Saturday 13 October 2012, Johnston Collection). And when Joe Eisenberg, former director of NERAM in Armidale and now head of MRAG, was asked by Anna Waldman what he thinks about deaccessioning? (Art Monthly Australia, June 2015, p.25)

“Don’t believe in it – Armidale has actually sold some works that I collected, and tears well in my eyes just saying a thing. A curator’s or director’s choice is just that, and because times and tastes change, you don’t sell off their selections. Most major Australian galleries clean-out the storeroom every so often, and I think that is criminal. It should all remain part of the collection to represent an important piece acquired at a specific time and place.”

The assumption that the collection has been acquired legally and ethically is being challenged in the post-colonial world. The conservative anti-deaccessioning position wants to keep the collection as a treasure horde regardless of its acquisition. If a state gallery can make mistakes about provenance, it can also make mistakes about aesthetic merit or historical importance. Their accession policy is not error-free, and deaccessioning is part of the process of correction.

Another assumption is that the acquisition choices are based solely on artistic quality and not popularity or displays of political allegiance. “Does the object lack sufficient aesthetic merit or art historical importance to warrant retention?” (Assoc of Art Museum Directors’ position paper on deaccessioning

The giant KAWS statues at the NGV, Bendigo and Pt Leo Estate Sculpture Park were not acquired because the directors thought they were great art. Instead, they claim that the popularity of KAWS will attract new visitors to the gallery. If this were true, would it be appropriate to sell these statues when his popularity declines and before the market crashes? But this is not the case because these institutions also support the neo-liberal idea that private ownership of art is the cornerstone of the art world. By retaining the work in their collection they will endorses the value of those owned by private collectors. 

This again raises the question of the purpose of the gallery’s collection. Supporting private collectors? Displaying part of a treasure horde? Playing some game of interstate rivalry? Not knowing the purpose of your collection is crazy. Not deaccessioning is crazy.

Temporary replica of Keith Haring’s painting on the NGV’s waterwall 2019

Framed reviewed

One of the most mysterious art crimes is the theft and ransom of Picasso’s Weeping Woman from the NGV in Melbourne. Not a lot is known about it apart from some ransom notes sent by the thieves. The painting was returned undamaged after being held by the Australian Cultural Terrorists. So SBS’s four-part documentary was always going to be a stretch.

The various commentators on Framed tell us many contradictory things. That the NGV was amongst the best art galleries in the world and then that it had aircon and security problems at the time. That staff loved that NGV Director, Patrick McCaughey, and that the docents went on strike after he took away their chairs. That Arts and Police Minister, Race Matthews, was good for the arts and that he was pompous. And many guesses at who did the crime while explaining how damaging this was to the people implicated. 

Framed frames people from perennial favourites to secret cabals of art insiders and other wild theories. It then looks at the damage that wild accusations cause. The program presented about five, including Ashley Crawford’s pure speculation, McCaughey’s biography and the anonymous letter sent to Virginia Trioli. And why do all these wild theories assume that it was a man who stole the painting? Why not a woman? If they wanted to go wild, they could have asked Trioli if she stole it; after all, she has written about being involved in stealing the bronze dog, Larry La Trobe.

Part of the mystery of the theft of the Weeping Woman is that it is a very different kind of crime. And it has become a genre of stories, very creative non-fiction in autobiographies and speculations from authoritative sources. As everybody wants to solve the mystery themselves.

Framed doesn’t frame the cubist painting regarding the politics in Australia’s historical relationship to modern art. What it symbolised to the NGV and a “philistine country” (to use McCaughey’s own words). TV is good at setting the scene, and the program includes lots of shots of Melbourne in the early 1980s and McCaughey in different coloured bow ties. Unfortunately, there is not the same background about the painting or Picasso.

Instead of presenting unprovable speculations, the program could have shown more details and context about art crimes. Although it briefly examines art forgery, it doesn’t look at art theft in any great detail and even less about art theft for ransom.

Would someone steal art to get better security for the gallery? Were there art thieves in Australia who could smuggle stolen paintings out of the country? What happens in other art for ransom theft in Australia? And why did the police drain the NGV’s moat in their search? I answer these questions that Framed doesn’t in my yet unpublished book on Australian art crimes. 

Incidentally, presenter Marc Fennell asked the questions when I was a contestant on Mastermind.

Picasso, The Weeping Woman

Maree Clarke’s Ancestral Memories

My main reason to go to the NGV was to see Maree Clarke solo retrospective, “Ancestral Memories”, but I saw another exhibition before – “We Change the World”. After all the world needs to change. However, this is a tracksuit of an exhibition theme, comfortable, shapeless, and accommodating almost anything. The work is from the NGV collection, a random selection including Julian Opie, David Hockney, Guerrilla Girls, and Maree Clarke… (Why Clarke when there is her solo exhibition in the next gallery?)

Maree Clarke, Maree Clarke 2012, inkjet print (image courtesy of NGV)

“Ancestral Memories” is the subtitle of the Maree Clarke exhibition; it was also the title of her exhibition at the University of Melbourne Old Quad in 2019. For ancestral memories are the material that Clarke works with. (Please read my blog post reviewing that exhibition, Clarke’s role as a culture worker, and why she is an important local artist.)

This Yorta Yorta / Wamba Wamba / Mutti Mutti / Boonwurrung woman has been reclaiming and revived many south-east Australian Aboriginal art and cultural practices, including possum skin cloaks to kangaroo tooth necklaces. At the NGV her work is display alongside historical material from Museum Victoria, clearly illustrating how she is reviving her culture. Before Clarke, there were less than a dozen possum skin cloaks in existence, all from the nineteenth century. After Clarke, the number of possum skin cloaks is increasing because she, along with other collaborators, brought the practice back to life.

It is a sombre exhibition with black painted walls. Much of the exhibition is about mourning, another form of ancestral memory. One of the slightly lighter notes is the series of photographic holograms of still life, including native flowers and kitsch Aboriginal Australiana. As Clarke looks from the ancestral memories to a future, including new technology and materials along the way.

This exhibition follows on from the NGV’s retrospective for Bindi Cole; more retrospectives for Indigenous woman artists are a welcome trend.


Australian Art Terrorists

A few Australian groups have acted or threatened to take action outside of the law to achieve artistic and cultural objectives. Most are right-wing conservatives — so much for the so-called ‘cancel culture’ of the left.

A.C.T. target Picasso’s Weeping Woman

In 2003 the Revolutionary Council for the Removal of Bad Art in Public Places threatened to destroy a number of pieces of public art. That the “spokesman, Dave Jarvoo, told The Australian newspaper” about the threat speaks to the conservative taste of this so-called Revolutionary Council. The fact is that they were all talk and no action, and the spuriously named, Dave Jarvoo appears to be the only member of this organisation. 

Their targets were modern sculptures Fairfield Industrial Dog Object and in Sydney; Ken Unsworth’s Stones Against the Sky ‘poo sticks’ in Kings Cross and Brett Whiteley’s Almost Once giant matches behind the Art Gallery of NSW. David Fickling for The Guardian came up with several more deserving targets in Sydney (see his article), and I could do the same for Melbourne (perhaps in another post). (Thanks to Vetti Live in Northcote for drawing my attention to the Revolutionary Council for the Removal of Bad Art in Public Places.)

The Australian Cultural Terrorists (aka A.C.T.) stole Picasso’s Weeping Woman from the NGV, held it to ransom and then returned it undamaged. They seem to have twice as many members as Dave Jarvoo’s Revolutionary Council; at least one man and, maybe, one woman. They were more successful than the Revolutionary Council but, perhaps, no more radical given their demands for more art prizes for local artists. They had no follow up aside from stories that the following year they also wrote some  libellous letters about people in Australia’s art world. The A.C.T. wrote lots of jeering, satirical letters, several of them attacking state Arts Minister, Race Mathews.

To this list, we could add the Catholic Church for their attack on Andre Serrano’s Piss Christ in the NGV. Graffiti writers, like Pork, that cap and tag as a form of conquest and censorship. And BUGA-UP, graffiti to stop tobacco advertising, vigilantes with a specific type of art, selling a particular message in mind, not exactly the artistic kind but still ‘art’ in the advertising copy sense.

Revolutionary Council target Fairfield Industrial Dog Object


Ivan Durrant @ NGV

Ivan Durrant, War, 1981

Ivan Durrant is not an enfant terrible; he is not even a very naughty boy. Durrant is just another painter; often a photorealist painter, but one of the better ones who are interested in light, optics and death. The stories, the legends of blood, slaughter and a dead cow in the forecourt of the NGV on St. Kilda Road don’t describe the retrospective exhibition currently on at the NGV Australia.

The terrible publicity stunt that Durrant is best remembered for, dumping a dead cow in the forecourt of the NGV, resulted in him being fined $100 for littering, ordered to pay $157 in court costs (worth about $1705 in current value). It is the same penalty that was applied to Arlo Guthrie’s narrator in the song Alice’s Restaurant. So there is Arlo and Ivan sitting on bench W with all kinds of mean, nasty, ugly looking people who may not be moral enough to join the army.

The NGV wasn’t that upset with Durrant’s stunt and bought his Butcher shop three years later. For those who remember Durrant’s butcher shop when it was at the entrance to the NGV’s restaurant, to remind the diners.

Looking at the Butcher Shop and his other sculptural pieces again, I see that although the modelling of the meat is excellent, everything else lacks detail. The label and price on the severed hand package, the lack of signs on the butcher shop door or window, even the carpentry around the window is wrong.

Aside from four sculptural pieces, the rest of the exhibition is about paint and traditional themes for paintings: horse racing, football, the artist’s studio, landscapes, farms and animals. Even his paintings of butchered animals are part of a very traditional theme; from Pieter Aertsen’s Butcher’s Stall with the Flight into Egypt 1551 that features a cows head and other carcasses, Rembrandt’s Slaughtered Ox 1655 showing a butchered carcass to Soutine’s Carcass of Beef, 1925, riffing off Rembrandt.

installation view of a series of Durrant’s paintings

The exhibition shows Durrant development as a painter from his early naive folk style paintings to his current series in saturated colours. Grouped in a series on the massive walls of the NGV Durant’s paintings show a bigger picture and a mind that is more subtle than shock and awe.

If you want to see art that upsets the established order, visit the Destiny Deacon exhibition on the ground floor.

The NGV was so empty that morning just after the reopening after the COVID-19 lockdown. A person played the cello in the foyer, welcoming the visitors back. Entry was by free timed-entry tickets, and there were hand-sanitiser stations on all levels.


The future of culture

I was going to write a review of online exhibitions during the lockdown. Most had a note on their website saying that they were closed — “indefinitely’/temporary/for installation” due to COVID-19 virus. I had a little play with at the NGV’s online version of their Keith Haring/Jean-Michel Basquiat exhibition but that was like driving around an area using Google street view.

So I thought about it some more. The larger problem for art galleries is that contemporary visual art is still all about objects in a space. And not just any objects and not just any space; art objects in art spaces. It is a problem that they have brought on themselves by emphasising both the object and the space. If only they had considered more non-objective art outside of art space.

The commercial art galleries business model is to sell objects. So I blame, because they can change, the non-commercial galleries for not being progressive enough and following the art model sold by the commercial galleries. 

What happens when art leaves the physical space? What is the difference between the cultic object and the display? (see Walter Benjamin The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction section 5) What is the difference between loosing an object, like the Mona Lisa, in outer-space or at the bottom of the ocean, and not being able to remove an image of you posing naked with grandfather clock from the internet? Street artists and graffiti writers know something about the online social media display value of their art as distinct from the physical object.

And why are we still thinking about the arts? We should be more concerned with culture and not the arts, for culture is a larger set that includes the arts. Likewise, ‘culture worker’ is a broader category than ‘artist’ and ‘poet’ and all those other self-indulgent terms.

For culture is about people’s lives — Indigenous readers know what I’m talking about. Culture provides more of a sense of identity than a job, culture is what makes your life and work meaningful. Culture is not an industry and the value of culture can never be assessed in purely economic terms. While the arts industry can be seen as self-serving and little different from the adult entertainment industry; culture cannot. There are items of culture that are worth more than money, that should not be sold or does Uluru have a sales price? And after admitting that there are culturally significant objects that are outside of capitalist market forces, funding culture outside of a capitalist market is logical.

However, the small-minded, greedy, conservative people who run Australia cannot understand anything other dollars and bullets so currently there is no Minister for Culture in Australia and the arts is part of the Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications (no Oxford comma in the Ministry).

Now we have the time to change our minds and think about the bigger picture of culture.

Glenn Romanis, Stanley Street project

Several March Exhibitions

On Friday I went into Melbourne to see some exhibitions and street art. With increasing isolation looming, firstly due to the closure of my train line for Sky Rail construction, and the prospect of further isolation due to the pandemic, it might be my last chance to see some exhibitions for a few months.

A walk along Flinders Lane leads to less galleries than it did a decade ago.

Arc One had an exhibition of furniture made of leather part of Melbourne Design Week 2020, it was more like a shop than a gallery. It was “Partu” (the Walmajarri word for skin) by Johnny Nargoodah and Trent Jansen. Most of the pieces looked awkward and you could see the steel armature underneath the leathery contortions.

Fortyfive Downstairs had “Between Horizons” haunting sculptures in the shape of boats by Jan Learmonth and, “Microcosmographia” a group exhibition about animals.

Turning off Flinders Lane I walked down Hosier Lane and although it was less crowded without the Chinese tourists, I was surprised at how many people were still there. I was looking for the aftermath of the great fire-extinguisher spray performance event. You could still see it, high up on the walls, if you knew what to look for and where to look for it. Most of it has been repainted. Local writers are keen to inform the public about the effect that the shop, Culture Kings, is having on the lane’s culture. Culture Kings are the main offender but there are other advertisers with stencils who were exploiting the traffic in the lane. Everything is not a platform to advertise your product; there are more important things.

My main objective was to see the “Japanese Modernism” exhibition at the NGV International and but while I was at there I looked at the art book fair, an up-market and quality zine fair for people who love book design.

“Japanese Modernism” is not a large exhibition, just a large room, with men’s fashion on one side and women’s fashion on the other side. It is mostly design, rather than art, with some great examples of ephemera in the form tourist maps, magazines, make-up and music scores for the popular modern instruments harmonica and ukulele.

There was no shock of the new for Japan as the land already shaken by the Great Kantō earthquake of 1923. And Japan adopted modernism with a confidence born from the fact that modernism was always a syncretic mix that included Japanese and European elements.


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